Baby Jesus to Bloody Jesus: The Children’s Ministry Challenge

I’m finally letting myself believe it: the enormous pile of children in our sanctuary is not a fluke, and this is not just an Easter spike. These kids are coming, and they’re staying.

And we need to teach them about Jesus.

Of course we’ve been teaching children about Jesus–in small, manageable increments. Now they have outgrown their space, seemingly overnight. Loaves and fishes up in here–but with children. ‘New Program for Older Elementary Kids’ just went from about #8 to numero uno on our to-do list–did I mention, overnight. Which led me on an internet search for creative, engaging, meaningful material for Christian education. And now I remember why I hate looking for this stuff. Because most of it sucks.

Thing is, it doesn’t all suck in the same way. There is great stuff out there–engaging, colorful, high-energy, user-friendly for leaders, and just all around fun. However, if it gets an ‘A’ in those categories, there’s a good chance that the theology is going to be–let’s say, problematic. Or maybe just kind of shallow.

Then there’s the progressive, intelligent, challenging content…usually about as interesting as watching gray paint dry. There are worksheets involved. Coloring papers. And possibly, a trust walk involving blind folds. (But we save that for the REALLY fun day.) Also, the smart and progressive stuff can be pretty light on the Jesus.

I can sum up these troubling extremes in the past-Church experience of two families I’ve met recently. One comes from another mainline church in the area. Both parents grew up in the denomination, both have held leadership roles in the church, and they felt the congregation mirrored their progressive values (translation: doesn’t hate on girls or gays) . But for some time, they’ve felt that something was missing in the spiritual side of things. Then, at Christmas, the mother got out the family nativity set. Upon seeing the manger, her 3-year-old daughter said, “Is that baby Santa??”

So, ‘church-going child who has never heard of Jesus:’ we’ll call that the Progressive Problem. Meanwhile: another child went to Easter worship elsewhere, with a family member. She came home and told her mom that, “If I’m not a good girl, Jesus will kill me.”

WTF??  I don’t know the first thing about this other church–name, location, or affiliation–but i’m going to give them the benefit of the doubt and say that they probably didn’t say that to a child, not exactly. Thing is, kids discern layers of meaning. They are creative, complex little boogers. You don’t have to come right out and say ‘Jesus will kill you’ in order for a child to draw that connection. If Easter–or the message of salvation–is a little too blood and gutsy, then in a child’s mind, Jesus=death. Let’s call that one the Bloody Jesus Problem.

Both of these families have made their way to the church that I serve, seeking a better message for their children. I really want to give them that.

In Christianity after Religion, Diana Butler Bass criticizes the ‘canned’ children’s programming that I’ve been shopping through. I love much of the book, but she writes off the shiny, colorful world of Christian Ed material a little too easily. She laments by-gone days when church ladies just made Vacation Bible School happen. They assembled the crafts and made cookies and designed banners wrote catchy songs and…it was all so authentic and magical. Now, as she points out, you buy the whole business in a set that literally comes in a can, and you hang a banner that looks just like the banner at the church down the street–advertising exactly the same program as the church down the street. (In my neighborhood, in fact, it would be possible for a child to go to a different VBS each week of the summer…and yet, go to exactly the same VBS, each week of summer).

I agree that it’s cheesy and sterile, and a bit of a cheat. At the same time–you find me 20 church ladies who don’t work in the corporate world, raise grandchildren, hike/bike/do yoga, bake bread, run the church office, write books, garden, travel and, you know, have a life… And I will ask them to really DO Vacation Bible School. And Sunday School and youth group. And children’s worship.

Thing is, my church ladies have lives. So do the men, the young adults, and the parents. And while they are wonderful church leaders and excellent teachers, we can’t really afford be so precious about it. And even if we could, those professionally tricked-out canned things (which, btw, come with a free online planning tool) are drawing people out of our progressive, forward-thinking, woman-empowering, gay-loving mainline churches and into the Bloody Jesus places, every Sunday of the world. Because kids love them. And if kidswantto go to church…well, then so will the rest of the family.

Confession time: I used to work for Group Publishing. In addition to turning out glossy, high-energy and low-planning-needs curriculum, they also run a summer mission trip program. I used to travel the country setting up and helping lead these week-long experiences in small, impoverished communities. At the end of each work day, the high school youth would gather back at the school (which served as headquarters) for dinner, fellowship, and worship.

Ah, worship. It was fun. It was exciting. It was high-energy, high-impact, and emotionally charged. And yeah, it came in a can.

And just like the VBS materials that come from Group (and other companies like them) the Thursday evening experience always centered on the salvation message. I mean…in a Bloody Jesus kind of way. It was dramatic, it was emotional, it played on the hormones and fatigue of teen-agers who have been away from home, sleeping on the floor for a week. Come Saturday morning, kids went home feeling that they’d had a major, transformative experience. And maybe they had…but it came in a can.

Thing is, I loved working for Group. They’re a wonderful company, and their stuff is colorful, engaging and easy to plan. But I use their materials now realizing that, somewhere along the way (especially in VBS) there will be a Bloody Thursday moment that needs to be modified for a progressive audience.

Do I think that sin and salvation are critical messages of Christianity? Of course. Do I think themes of death and resurrection need to be dealt with at a young age? Yes. Do children need to know what ‘crucifixion’ means before they can fix their own sandwiches? Maybe not.

Where the line is, I think each church and parent has to know for themselves. But if a kid comes home from church saying that ‘Jesus is going to kill me,’ somebody has gone too far.

For my money, I’m ready for the fun, glossy, real-world model of children’s ministry that actually teaches kids about Jesus–without dwelling too much on the death and horror of it all. If I knew what that looked like, I’d write it myself, but for reals, I barely know what to tell my own kids about death, Jesus and the Easter bunny.

My friend Sarah over at Salt and Nectar wrote a beautiful piece today about how she started going to church for her kid, but now goes for herself. I find tremendous hope in her story. I hope that other people who left the church when they were younger–fed up with Bloody Jesus and the ways grown-ups used him to manipulate their behavior–will seek out a place of faith and community ‘for their children.’  And I hope that they, too will be surprised by the joyful, inclusive, thoughtful, authentic, and challenging gospel that they hear upon arrival

Because Church is not just about ‘fun.’ But you know, the places where women aren’t allowed to speak; where that kid with two dads is never going to be welcomed; where Bloody Jesus Thursday is a regular event; and where the only question allowed is “what must I do to be saved….?” those places are making it the funnest, and well…I want some of those kids back. And I hope they’ll bring their parents.

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  • Carol

    I certainly agree that many mainline churches have substituted a form of secular humanism decked out in god-words for the Gospel Message and a 60’s political agenda for the Gospel ethic.

    However, the Gospel Message is NOT “accept Jesus Christ as your personal Savior or you are going to hell” and it is not true that you don’t need to research any issues because all you need is your bible and Jesus in your heart, especially when the “Jesus in your heart” is more like a small child’s imaginary friend who is always on your side whenever conflicst occur with others. Oh, yes, and the Gospel ethic is NOT a 50’s political agenda and God is not a Republican, either.

    Confirmation is an intiation rite, not a graduation ceremony. An eighth-grade theological/spiritual formation is not going to adequately prepare the Christian laity for faithful witness in our complex, hi-tech world.

    “The dignity of man rests above all on the fact that he is called to communion with God. The invitation to converse with God is addressed to man as soon as he comes into being. For if man exists it is because God has created him through love, and through love continues to hold him in existence. He cannot live fully according to truth unless he freely acknowledges that love and entrusts himself to his creator. …. Without doubt those who willfully try to drive God from their heart and to avoid all questions about religion, not following the biddings of their conscience, are not free from blame. But believers themselves often share some responsibility for this situation. For atheism, taken as a whole, is not present in the mind of man from the start (Atheismus, integre consideratus, non est quid originarium). It springs from various causes, among which must be included a critical reaction against religions and, in some places, against the Christian religion in particular. Believers can thus have more than a little to do with the rise of atheism. To the extent that they are careless about their instruction in the faith, or present its teaching falsely, or even fail in their religious, moral, or social life, they must be said to conceal rather than to reveal the true nature of God and of religion.”–Vatican Council II, Gaudium et Spes, 19

    “(American Christianity) is more Petrine than Johannean; more like busy Martha than like the pensive Mary, sitting at the feet of Jesus. It expands more in breadth than in depth. It is often carried on like a secular business, and in a mechanical or utilitarian spirit. It lacks the beautiful enamel of deep fervor and heartiness, the true mysticism, an appreciation of history and the Church; it wants (i.e. “lacks”) the substratum of a profound and spiritual theology; and under the mask of orthodoxy it not infrequently conceals, without intending or knowing it, the tendency to abstract intellectualism and superficial rationalism. This is especially evident in the doctrine of the church and of the sacraments, and in the meagerness of the worship… (wherein) nothing is left but preaching, free prayer, and singing.”–Philip Schaff, a Swiss theologian, analyzing American Christianity for a German audience in 1854.

    “We should be less concerned about making churches full of people and more concerned about making people full of God.” – C. Kirk Hadaway and David A. Roozen

    The point of the spiritual life is not our personal private holiness but rather opening our selves so that the life of God can pour out on the community. ~ Maggie Ross

  • Peggy Rhodes

    When I was a kid (early 1950’s-yipes) my family went to church, Sunday mornings, Sunday nights, Wednesday nights, and any other time the doors were open. I had several small books that depicted stories from the bible. They were illustrated with cartoon-like drawings. The books were lined up on my book shelf along with and intermingled with my fairy tail books such as Three Little Pigs, Little Red Riding Hood, The Little Engine That Could, and other Once Upon a Time themes. When I reached an age of awareness and discovered that there is no Easter Bunny or Santa, pigs do not speak English, the fox did not eat the old lady and the engine will roll down the hill if the brakes are not set properly I was devastated. In my mind there was grouped all cartoon illustrated books. And so Jesus was no longer relevant. It took me years living in a mental desert to relearn what is real and what fantasy is. Making and keeping Jesus relevant and real to the younger generation should be a focus for all. Thank you for embracing the task.

    • Erin Wathen

      peggy, thank you for the connection between childish, cartoon-like drawings of Jesus and the ‘fictional’ character that makes him out to be. I’d never thought of that before, but wow…what a message that sends. I will probably blog more about this soon!

    • Carol

      Peggy’s experience seems to be common among many cradle Christians. They interpret “myth” as a fairy tale rather than as an archetypal experience–not something that never happened, but rather something that happens all the time.

      “When I was a child, the stories of Jesus’ birth captured my imagination. But as a young man growing up in the Catholic faith, the mystery of Christmas was mostly lost on me. As I grew, the Nativity story seemed fixed in centuries long past and spoke to realities that I assumed were long gone from the face of the earth. When I began studying theology, I learned to categorize the infancy narratives as myths, imaginative stories written to convey hidden truths but easily dismissed by the intellect. The Incarnation, God’s love poured out “in the flesh” of Jesus, remained an abstraction, a doctrine that needed to be understood and explained, certainly, but hardly something one would live.” ~ Christopher Pramuk

      Having been raised in a *non-religious* family, I read the Judeo/Christian Scriptures for the first time as an adult. I had also lived for 18 months in West Africa in the early 60’s and had learned that trible tradition, unlike Western “historicism” was more concerned with the meaning of their stories than with getting the details correct, so I interpreted the Scriptures from a very different perspective from most cradle Christians.

      Jesus, the Jewish Rabbi that I encountered in the text was quite different from Jesus, the Greek ontological/moral philosopher or even Jesus, the gnostic guru. I had a bible thrown at me in bible class accompanied by the angry statement, “Well, if you are going to say that, you might as well just take this book and throw it away!”

      “In Judaism it was possible simultaneously to ascribe change of purpose to God and to declare that God did not change, without resolving the paradox; for the immutability of God was seen as the trustworthiness of covenanted relation to his people in the concrete history of his judgment and mercy, rather than as a primarily ontological category.” –Jaroslav Pelikan, The Christian Tradition—Vol. 1.

      Theological/spiritual formation in the Latin/Western Church has, over time, become increasingly rationalistic and juridical–especially since the Great Schism in 1054 that separated it from the influence of the Orthodox Churches of the East. :

      Four crises separate Western Christians on the one hand from the New Testament writers and Eastern Christians on the other. If we understand these crises and the effects they had, we can attempt to “roll them back” in our minds and understand the New Testament more clearly.
      The New Testament is in Greek, which has a large philosophical vocabulary that Latin lacks. Ecumenical councils used Greek as the working language; then they made an official translation into Latin for use in the West. Many of the most heated debates were about which Latin words best conveyed the meaning of the Greek resolution they had already agreed on. Because Greek philosophical concepts had to be translated into Latin legal concepts, theology in the West took on the character of codified law after the West lost Greek. To this day, Orthodox theologians reason like rabbis, while western theologians reason like lawyers.
      Augustine accused Pelagius of teaching salvation by works
      Western Christians are obsessed with not being saved by works
      Western Christians deemphasize ascetic disciplines and exercises
      Spirituality becomes a set of mental acts
      Salvation is rescue from hell, rather than transformation into glory
      Determinism enters some parts of western theology from Manichaeism through Augustine

      Theology moved from the monastery to the university
      Western theology is an intellectual discipline rather than a mystical pursuit
      Western theology is over-systematized
      Western Theology is systematized, based on a legal model rather than a philosophical model
      Western theologians debate like lawyers, not like rabbis
      Catholic reformers were excommunicated and formed Protestant churches
      Western churches become guarantors of theological schools of thought
      Western church membership is often contingent on fine points of doctrine
      Some western Christians believe that definite beliefs are incompatible with tolerance
      The atmosphere arose in which anyone could start a church
      The legal model for western theology intensifies despite the rediscovery of the East

      Philosophers founded empirical sciences
      Western theologians attempt to apply empiricism to theology
      Western theologians agonize over the existence of God
      Western theologians lose, deemphasize, neglect, marginalize, or explain away the supernatural
      Western theologians no longer have coherent answers for many practical religious questions
      Western churches outsource the treatment of religious problems to secular therapists

      East and West
      Western Christians are obsessed with not being saved by works
      Western Christians deemphasize ascetic disciplines and exercises
      Spirituality becomes a set of mental acts
      Salvation is rescue from hell
      The emphasis is on the cross
      Determinism enters some parts of western Christian theology

      Works express faith, faith gives birth to works
      Eastern Christians engage in fasting and other spiritual disciplines
      Spirituality involves both mind and body
      Salvation is transformation into glory
      The emphasis is on resurrection and transformation
      Determinism never entered Christian theology

      Western theology is primarily an intellectual discipline by professors
      Western theology is over-systematized
      Western theology is based on a legal model
      Western theologians debate like lawyers

      Eastern theology is primarily a mystical pursuit by monastics
      Eastern theology is not as strictly systematized; for example, the number of sacraments is not set and is not controversial
      Eastern theology is based on a philosophical model
      Eastern theologians debate like rabbis

      Western churches became guarantors of theological schools of thought
      Western church membership is often contingent on fine points of doctrine
      Some western Christians believe that definite beliefs are incompatible with tolerance
      The atmosphere arose in which anyone could start a church

      Eastern theology, while holding more strictly than western theology on basic dogmas, is tolerant of differences of opinions on finer points
      Eastern church membership is contingent on commitment and behavior
      Eastern Christians have no difficulty maintaining definite beliefs while remaining tolerant.
      There was nothing corresponding to the Protestant Reformation and there is no proliferation of sects within the mainstream

      Western Christians see a dichotomy of spirit and matter
      Western theologians attempt to apply empiricism to theology
      Western theologians agonize over the existence of God
      Western theologians have lost, deemphasized, neglected, marginalized, or explained away the supernatural and miraculous
      Western theologians no longer have coherent answers for many practical religious questions (such as during bereavement)
      Western churches outsource the treatment of religious problems, such as bereavement, to secular therapists

      Eastern Christians see a dichotomy of God and creation
      Eastern theologians are largely unaffected by modernism
      Eastern theologians do not agonize over the existence of God
      Eastern theologians systematize the transcendent, the miraculous, and the mystical into their theology, without a concept of ‘supernatural’
      Eastern theologians have coherent and helpful answers for most practical spiritual problems (such as during bereavement)
      Eastern clergy, monastics, and lay experts have resources for spiritual direction, moral direction, and Eastern clergy, monastics, and lay experts have resources for spiritual direction, moral direction, and bereavement counseling; thus they do not outsource religious problems to secular experts.

  • Jenny E

    Hey, guys! I stumbled over here from the Patheos home page. I used to do children’s ministry at a couple of tiny churches and grew up with the canned, slick, bloody Jesus Thursday version in the SBC in Texas. I’m glad to see so many commenters discussing the theology and motives behind our methods of ministering to children. Beautiful stuff.

    I have a couple of practical suggestions, which may or may not work for you, but maybe they will be useful jumping off points. You may already know these, so forgive me if you have already rejected these ideas as not workable for your particular group…

    First, if you like Pete Enns, he is doing/has done a children’s curriculum. I honestly haven’t checked it out yet, since I’m no longer working in children’s ministry, but he seems like he would be neither bloody/pushy or light on the Jesus-stuff.

    Second, if that doesn’t fit your bill and you have a few people who can do the planning, you might consider the rotation model. There are several websites and lesson-sharing forums (it’s sometimes called WORM, for Workshop Rotation Model), but the basic idea is that you study the same story or episode or scripture passage for 3-5 weeks in a row using different “intelligences” each week. Each class has a permanent “shepherd” who will rotate with the group to a different workshop for each unit. Each workshop has volunteers who sign up for a 3-5 week stint to teach a particular story (say…Jesus calms the storm) in a particular way (like drama, cooking, art, music, building, etc.). So your workshop volunteers teach the same basic lesson every week for the extent of the unit and each class gets to do a new, more in-depth type of activity every week. It also lets kids spend more time with a story/scripture and approach it from multiple angles, which is really helpful. It does require a lot of planning at the “top”, but it lets more members of the congregation participate in teaching the kids without making a full-time commitment. It’s kind of a major project, especially for a larger congregation, but you can do a lot of fun stuff with it.

    As a parent of preschoolers and a former English teacher, it thrills me to see churches with more progressive theology taking kids seriously. I’m hoping that it will mean the creation of better curricula with better theology in the future. Good luck to you!